Varadero Review

Cuba, finally. And potentially just in time, before the full-scale American invasion that is surely soon to take place – a 21st century invasion, of course, involving very little violence and armed bravado, but oh so many photo tours and condescending bouts of haggling. We chose to ease our way in by taking advantage of a cheap one-week all-inclusive in the long-time beach-goer favourite, Varadero. A short preview: eat, read, eat, drink, eat, watch, sleep, repeat. To add slightly more detail to this admittedly evocative description however, I have followed the inspiration provided by the great Forrest MacNeil, and have chosen to review not just the hotel or restaurant, but all the many different aspects of the overall experience. Sure, it may not be on par with the challenges Forrest has faced, such as eating 15 pancakes, or curing a gay, but is it not, in our age of constant connectivity and endless opinions, seemingly our inherently obnoxious duty as humans to rate, critique and rank everything we see and do? Maybe don’t answer that, and just read on instead. Besides, I love the irony of undertaking a methodical system of internet reviews in Cuba which, to this point of our visit, appears to be the least technologically developed country we have ever visited. And we’ve been to Africa.

Walking on the beach

These scenic walks were among the week’s highlights for us, at times with clear blue-green water and white, powdery sand glistening in the sun, others featuring gale-force winds and menacing waves crashing violently landward. We caught infrequent glimpses of frequently terrible beach volleyball, espied countless painful and extremely asymmetrical sunburns, and revelled in the excitement of the miles-long beach’s lone lifeguard vehemently and repeatedly blasting his little red whistle each time an unfit-looking tourist so much as dipped a foot in the water on days where waves caused a red flag warning.

Walking on the beach

4****

Windswept Varadero beach

Eating exclusively buffet food

The buffet was quite large, and reasonably varied, assuming you consider different combinations of chickens, porks and an assortment of rice colours to be the height of diversity. The toaster had a serious temperamental streak, the pineapple was sourly under-ripe all week, cereal and bowls appeared together at the same breakfast just twice, and one day my fish fillet was undercooked enough that I actually had to saw at the tough pink middle with a steak knife before coming to my senses just in time to pass on it, but for the most part the food was decent and plentiful. Paradoxically fresh buns seemed even better when offered side by side with stale, crumbling bread, ice cream was available daily, and they even scraped together a few bunches of bananas now and then, which was particularly exciting for that increasingly large group becoming concerned with both alcohol poisoning and scurvy.

Although we did ironically discover a very capable pair of waitresses the very last morning of our stay, in general the service was somewhat erratic, although we usually tipped anyway, an always when they filled our water bottles for us. However, while we also occasionally tipped the guy who cooked the eggs while a large line of people waited and watched, I found myself at a loss for how to respond, or what was expected of me, when following behind the guy who enticed the cook into an enthusiastic fist bump to celebrate the successful completion of a simple cheese omelet.

Eating exclusively buffet food

2**

Completing the entire drink menu

Due to the inclement weather many other groups of card-players and public clappers seemed to be paralleling our ambitious endeavour, possibly on an individual basis or, more likely, as part of rather destructive, if occasionally hilarious, booze spirals. We started off strong, rolling through the mojito, the long island iced tea and various orange-juice mixes, but soon found ourselves rapidly descending into clumsy drunkenness and unappealing boisterousness before getting heavily bogged down in the spicy, unfortunately tomato-based Cubanito (with possibly a lot of sugar, and maybe a dollop of sour milk), and eventually grinding to a humiliating halt by the tequila ranks. Our bartender, Boris, even seemed to think there’d been some mistake as despite willingly accepting my repeated over-tipping, and was clearly unconvinced that this was truly “just the way I roll”. In fact, in hindsight I suspect he easily recognized the true intent of my efforts for what they were, clumsy attempts to win back his favour following awkward attempts to be funny in Spanish. On a presumably related note, the following morning I had numerous false starts while struggling to swallow my slightly undercooked eggs.

Completing the entire drink menu

2**

Our mission

Pool bar dance party

A daily ritual at the swim-up bar, each afternoon two flexible young Cuban men and one raucously plump Cuban woman would arrive with their massive stereo equipment and personal DJ to lead the area into spontaneous dance. While the sight of so many unattractive tourists in shockingly poor physical condition gyrating their flaccid, sagging upper bodies while their lower half remained stuck underwater was at times disheartening, there was no denying the surprising amount of enthusiasm on display. And, while the young female tourist dancing in transparent bikini bottoms will be hard to forget, along with her interesting decision to go full shave, it will be the Cuban dance leader’s screeching “Ooowah! Ooowah! For two straight hours each afternoon that has etched itself painfully in my brain, probably to haunt me for years to come.

Pool bar dance party

3***

Dance party!

Using the internet

Despite sustained disbelief on my part, it seems that the only wifi in all of Varadero available to the public is at Todo en Uno (All in One), the children’s park about six blocks away from our hotel. Upon arrival I quickly deduced that the traditional Cuban method of internet use is to browse upon your phone with one hand while eating fried chicken off Styrofoam plates, now and then washing it down with cheap take-away beer while surrounded by a massive group of stranger’s children. Eager to join in this noble pastime, I asked around until eventually procured a small coded internet card that looked the part, and said all the right things on it, yet unfortunately lacked the actual power to imbue internet in any way, shape or form. Further enquiries led me to a young waiter, who led me through a back room to a smirking friend who happily produced a slightly different card from his back pocket with a mischievous flourish, and before you know it, I was in business. Of course, the card only provided a limited amount of time, and lacking any instruction as to how to log off, sign out, or in any other way stem the flow of my precious minutes, I was soon connectionless yet again. I chalked it up to a partially successful reconnaissance mission, returning a couple days later with lofty goals and great expectations. To my surprise, however, none of my previous methods proved fruitful on this day, with none of the suggested vendors admitting any knowledge of this mysterious entity I so optimistically referred to as “el internet”, often going so far as amazement that such a question would be asked of them. Even my previous saviour’s magic back pocket was nowhere to be found, making me wonder if his ill-fitting acid-wash pantaloons had actually been nothing more than my imagination. On we moved, asking-listening-searching, each time being gently denied while provided brief glimpses of hope in the form of yet another wildly difficult to find shop, allegedly just down the road, around the corner, or simply “that way”. Finally, just as we were preparing to concede defeat, we discovered the main office of the internet provider itself, and just a mere 20 blocks from our hotel! Shiny new card in hand, our smiles faded as we were brusquely informed that of course there was no signal here, at the Etecsa office, accompanied by a look of disbelief that we would even consider that a reasonable query, and that, as everybody knows, if you want to use the internet you head to Todo en Uno and set yourself up on a patch of sidewalk in front of the gas pumps with a beer and some chicken. Obviously.

Using the internet

1***

The Centre of All Things Internet

Buying a Cuban phone card

This story makes the internet story sound like a wonderful Disney tale of redemption and magic, and is one I am not emotionally ready to re-hash just yet.

Buying a Cuban phone card

1/2*

Reading by the pool

At the quiet southern pool we felt comfortable playing music on our Bluetooth speaker and listening to a Korean family vigorously reprimand their teenage daughter while feasting on bags of food presumably smuggled out of the buffet. At the busier transition pool in the middle we were well-removed from the drunken cavorting on either side, yet still were able to keep tabs on how often each person passed by for drinks and bathroom breaks, or, in the case of certain efficiently veteran drinkers, both. At the party pool we had ever-present views of portly, ruddy-faced men crouched unattractively over the swim-up bar and eventually were forced to move over to make room for the comically-large speakers apparently required for afternoon dance party. Regardless of the day’s location, reading by the pool was always relaxing, enjoyable, and really just the whole point in the end.

Reading by the pool

5*****

Pool drinks

Varadero, Cuba

Mostly rough weather, ok food, highlights and lowlights, nice pool and dank room, beautiful beach and large groups of Russians and 20-year old French-Canadians, drunk days and sober days, but never any shortage of rice.

Varadero, Cuba

3***

 

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